Whip of the Wild God by Mira Prabhu by Mira Prabhu - Read Online

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Whip of the Wild God - Mira Prabhu

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Veda

Chapter 1: Devikota Village, 1839 BCE

A drongo bird shrieked a raucous warning from the devadaru tree as Ishvari turned the corner of the narrow path leading out of the valley. She skidded to an abrupt halt, sucking in her breath at the sight of the yellow-banded coils of a king cobra lying before her on the sunwarmed path.

The king cobra was belligerent, its venom capable of killing an elephant! Fast as lightning, Ishvari clambered sideways on to the rocks bordering the trail, hoping the serpent was too sluggish to give chase. When she glanced back fearfully moments later, the cobra had only raised its painted hood in her direction, its tongue a forked, flickering earthworm.

She resumed her zigzag flight along the regular pathway, her long, black braid bouncing against her skinny buttocks. Again she sensed the presence of a benevolent entity: had this power prompted the drongo to shriek its timely warning? And why did she feel its hovering warmth most intensely in the quiet of the

forbidden valley, where the fog of sadness enshrouding her since her father’s callous murder nine moons ago always seemed to temporarily dissolve?

Despite the valley’s abundance of fruit, herbs and berries rendered more valuable than ever by impending famine, the superstitious Devikotans kept away from it for fear of ghosts. So Ishvari had been free to explore its lush beauty in peace, gorging on its bounty, and drinking from a spring so clear it reflected not just her thin face, but the glory of the sun. Best of all, she always returned home with her frayed shoulder bag bursting with rare herbs her mother could barter for staples at the weekly village market.

A vision of the riverside cave she’d stumbled upon today arose in her mind’s eye as she raced homeward. The cave had been veiled by a thick tangle of tall reeds, and on the crystalline surface of the water below, a white lotus had reigned. Amazed, she had watched a leopard emerge from its gloom and slip down to the riverbank, scanning his surroundings with liquid eyes before extending his neck to lap at the cool water.

The big cat had raced up a slope and into the stone temple perched on the valley’s rocky outcrop. Padding right up to a sadhu

meditating within, the beast had placed his tawny head on the man’s lap, as if in some primal form of worship. And even from afar, the sadhu’s copper-skinned beauty and regal air had enthralled her: if he was guardian of the valley, she wondered now, why was he allowing her to roam its length and breadth when the few Devikotans who’d ventured there could only stammer about chilling experiences that served to keep others away?

Mica-flecked piles of rock lining the edges of the trail caught shafts of dying sun, bringing her back to the present as they sparkled like stardust; even at its most bitter, life had its precious moments. But, as she cut through the fruit orchard that spread behind the cottage she’d been banished to with her mother and baby brother after her father’s murder, she sensed something was horribly wrong.

Stealing up to its back wall, she peered in through an open window. Her fist shot to her mouth to stifle a scream—Ghora, the village priest, knelt naked on the earthen floor, his thick-fingered hands grasping the waist of her equally naked mother from behind.

The squat priest was uttering ugly cries as he bucked crazily against her mother, the juttu of hair proclaiming his high status

bobbing on the crown of his shaven head, the sacred thread worn across the chest by the high-born looped conveniently over his left ear. In a corner, her baby brother, Obalesh, lay placidly on a kusha mat, a trickle of milk oozing out the side of his rosebud mouth.

Ghora’s body vibrated with a weird energy, his frenzied movements suggesting mingled pleasure and pain. But what of her mother? Could Sumangali possibly be enjoying this? She crept towards a second window for a better view. Ghora’s small eyes had rolled upwards in obscene gratification, but her mother’s lovely face was contorted with loathing.

Grabbing a sharp-edged stone, Ishvari stole back to the first window. Tucking it into the leather pad of the slingshot she used to chase monkeys away from the orchard, she aimed at the cleft of Ghora’s plump buttocks and let fly, praying to the gods for a perfect shot. Then she turned and fled through the approaching darkness, racing back along the tortuous path until she reached the giant rock throwing its oblong shadow across the base of the valley. Only then did she release her anguish in a piercing wail, dashing her forehead against the rock and welcoming the agony of tender skin splitting open.

Thunder rumbled ominously. Startled, Ishvari looked up to see the sky turn a violent maroon as a mass of storm clouds scudded rapidly past, leaving the sky clear again. So the Little Goddess attempts to force open her third eye but only succeeds in doing violence to herself! a great voice roared through the silence.

Little Goddess? Had the pain crashing through her head driven her insane? Or was Ghora playing a trick on her?

Impossible! The stout priest could never have chased her all the way here in so short a time…besides, this mighty voice sounded nothing like Ghora’s plaintive whine.

Warily she opened her eyes and beheld a gigantic being, shining like the sun, straddling the valley. The black and gold striped skin of a tiger covered his lingam and the velvet hide of an antelope draped itself across his massive chest. Knots of cobras writhed about the peacock-blue column of his neck and a crescent moon, luminous and delicate, hovered above his matted coils of hair. The god raised an enormous hand from which light streamed forth to enter her forehead.

Harness your rage, O Ishvari! the cosmic apparition thundered. Anger weakens the spirit and attracts the attention of

demons. I come to grant you great gifts, earned over a thousand

past lifetimes. Abuse them and I shall whip you until you beg for

oblivion. The awesome face visibly softened at her terror. Now, take heart! Your marksmanship has sent the false priest scuttling.

Be kind to your mother tonight, for soon, Devikota will exist only

in memory.

Ishvari touched her wound with tremulous fingers—still wet with blood, but the pain was miraculously gone. Then she was alone again in the shimmering valley. Stumbling home in an incredulous daze, she found Sumangali seated on the stoop, cradling Obalesh as she fretfully scanned the horizon with kohl-smudged eyes.

Why so late? Sumangali demanded as Ishvari silently set the bag of herbs down by her feet. She grabbed Ishvari’s arm and drew her close to examine the discoloration on her forehead.

What happened? she demanded, her anger changing to concern.

Tripped, Ishvari mumbled. Hit my head on a rock.

Get inside this minute! Sumangali ordered shrilly. When will you ever learn?

And when will you? Ishvari thought angrily. Inside the one-roomed cottage, she rocked her drowsy brother in her arms while Sumangali ground healing herbs for a poultice on a pock-marked grinding stone. She dared not speak of her outlandish experience in the valley—how would Sumangali react to the god’s cryptic words? Then her eyes fell on a straw basket of vegetables and a sack of rice standing next to the doorway and rage flared again—so this was Ghora’s pay for using her mother’s body!

Obalesh whimpered restlessly in her arms as Sumangali applied the ground herbs to her bruise. A rock flew in through the window while you were gone, her mother announced tersely, tying a piece of muslin around Ishvari’s forehead to keep the poultice in place.

Really, maa? Ishvari asked, her eyes widening mock innocently. Was it a monkey, do you think? They hurl stones at me, you know, when I chase them away from the orchard. Except for Ghora, she added slyly, no Devikotan would dare to come this close to the valley.

Suspicion alternated with guilt on Sumangali’s expressive face.

Did the stone strike you? Ishvari persisted.

If it had, idiot, Sumangali retorted. I’d be bleeding.

Ishvari hid a satisfied smirk as Sumangali served her a clay bowl of rice gruel and greens; so the god had spoken true—Ghora would think at least twice before coming here again!

Sleep well, child, Sumangali said, her face pinched and weary as she picked up Obalesh to give him her breast. Ghora came by to say that a royal envoy arrives from Melukhha tomorrow early morning to address all of Devikota. Bitterness flashed across her face. "The occasion is so important even pariahs

like us must attend."

Ishvari’s spirits plummeted. "But what’s this got to do with

u s?"

We’ll find out soon enough, Sumangali muttered. Then her voice rose, indicating her constant state of tension. "I beg you—do not follow your father’s example! It’s dangerous to provoke even the lowest of them! Swear to me by Mahadevi you’ll keep your mouth shut?"

Ishvari nodded a sullen assent. The wound on her forehead throbbed faintly, but the rawness of the pain was truly gone. Rest now, Sumangali coaxed, placing sleeping Obalesh on the kusha mat beside Ishvari. Your dreams will be sweet if you obey me.

She lay down beside Obalesh as Sumangali tidied up the kitchen area. The image of Ghora slamming himself against her mother’s willowy body forced a sharp cry from her, which she managed to disguise as a cough. Sumangali half-turned before resuming her work, and Ishvari glimpsed the stark misery on her face. Her mother hated Ghora, she reminded herself sternly; the only reason she could have submitted to the lecherous rascal was for the food he brought.

Ishvari stared up at the cracked ceiling, her thoughts a confused jumble as she considered her mother’s recent ramblings.

Sumangali had traced the onset of their current troubles in Devikota to her mother-in-law’s death four years ago, when a pestilence had raged through the village and stolen over a hundred lives. Soon after, her father-in-law too had sickened and died, and Hiranya had begun drowning his sorrows in liquor.

That wealthy Hiranya had been hit hard by the death of both his parents in such quick succession had reached the wrong ears:

Andhaka, village headman, had joined with Ghora to circle around him like birds of prey. Soon, vicious rumors concerning his parents’ consecutive deaths were floating around Devikota.

Possessed by a reckless god, or more likely demon, Hiranya had retaliated by making public speeches denouncing the powerful headman and his main accomplice, the priest. Fuelled by shots of rice liquor, his eloquence had soon attracted a swelling crowd;

whereupon the demon of drink had tightened the noose over his foolhardy neck and led him toward a humiliating death.

Sumangali’s dismal version of events continued to disturb Ishvari; was there really a curse on her mother as Ghora had publicly claimed? Like Hiranya, Sumangali too was an only child, orphaned by cruel circumstance. Born in the seaside village of Parushni, her mother had lived a carefree life until the night her merchant father had been struck dead by lightning. Parushni’s spiteful necromancer had warned Sumangali’s mother that her daughter’s beauty had provoked a jealous demoness into killing her father—unless Sumangali was cast out of Parushni, the hag swore, this malevolent entity would prey on its men, one after the other, ravaging the village. Believing the necromancer, her mother had thrown Sumangali out into the streets, then, in a frenzy of grief, drowned herself in the raging Parushni River.

A childless widower had offered Sumangali shelter. Fearing for her safety in the seething village, he’d immediately sent a message to his nephew in Devikota—a nephew who just happened to be Hiranya’s father. Stressing Sumangali’s suitability as a bride for Hiranya, he’d even offered a small dowry in precious stones.

Fortunately Hiranya’s parents had accepted his offer, and the kindly fellow had personally escorted the nervous teenager by bullock cart all the way to Devikota. Sumangali had fallen in love with her silver-tongued husband; producing Ishvari, she’d blossomed into womanhood. Then disaster had struck yet again.

Ishvari sucked on her thumb for comfort, feeling no older than Obalesh. How long before Sumangali broke down from the strain of keeping them alive in this wilderness? Would they survive the coming winter without a single kinsman to cushion their exile?

On the other side of the room, Sumangali prostrated before a stone deity of Mahadevi, adorned with stripes of vermilion and a few wilting marigolds. Tears streamed down her gaunt cheeks as she gazed at the image. Where is your protection, Goddess Mother? she sobbed. Do you not love us any more? Her beautiful face twisted with torment. "Allow him to defile this body

just one more time, she cried softly, and I shall end my pain forever."

Ishvari shivered under the thin quilt: could a good mother really abandon her children to such an unfriendly world? And why was Sumangali so spineless? Her hatred for Ghora intensified; at least, she consoled herself as sleep dragged her down into the underworld, her mother had not willingly joined with the bestial priest.

Ψ

When the Supreme Shakti

Of her own will assumes every form in the universe,

In that one quivering instant the Chakra comes into being.

Yogini-hrdaya

Chapter 2: Lord Kushal, Royal Envoy

Sun beat down on the village square, scorching Ishvari so callously that she stamped her feet in a furious dance. The surrounding throng of Devikotans sent hostile looks and muttered curses her way, but she did not care—hours of waiting in this pitiless heat and still the grand envoy from Melukhha had not deigned to appear!

Behave! Sumangali snapped, rocking Obalesh in her thin arms. You know how easy it is to provoke….

Why did you hide my slingshot then? Ishvari cut her off rudely. I’d shoot the eyes out of the first.…

You promised to shut your mouth, demonspawn!

Sumangali hissed, twisting Ishvari’s ear, her voice hoarsened by heat, dust and rising anxiety.

Ishvari rubbed her smarting ear, fighting back tears.

Demonspawn! Ghora’s vile name for her! Ever since his intrusion into their lives, her mother had turned into a jittery wreck.

Turning her back on Sumangali, she furtively surveyed the villagers. By the gods, the entire population of Devikota seemed to have assembled in the square, all waiting for this cursed envoy!

Ghora and the moribund Council of Elders stood at the head of the community, females congregated behind, while males lounged alongside the baked mud wall edging the square’s north end. Only

she and Sumangali stood apart, as was customary for those declared pariahs.

Hanging her head in frustration, Ishvari thought of their own little orchard: the instant this ridiculous gathering dispersed, she’d race home to pick the ripening fruit before birds and monkeys got them all. Her toe dug into the dry earth to trace a rough circle. She added small eyes—like those of the grunting pigs kept by the barber’s new mistress—then a wide slash of a mouth and a tongue hanging out. Looks like Ghora, she thought, gratified—only, not so ugly.

Muffled laughter rose from the dense ranks ahead of her.

Village belles, kohl-rimmed eyes glittering with expectation, exchanged whispers under the hawkish scrutiny of their elders—

heat had not dampened their spirits, nor affected the richness of their garments. She noticed that the twin daughters of the spice and incense merchant were dressed in scarlet and blue tunics edged with gold, while the sulky, double-chinned daughter of Devikota’s jeweler sweated in a tunic fashioned out of turquoise linen. In contrast, she and Sumangali were garbed in the plain white homespun pariahs were enjoined to wear for all public occasions.

Her eyes met those of Anasuya, the good-natured daughter of the village goldsmith. Anasuya flashed her a shy smile, whereupon her shrewish mother hit her daughter sharply on the head. Ishvari flinched, as if she herself had been struck; not that long ago, she’d played Seven Tiles and Snakes-On-The-Roof with the rich village girls. Blinking back tears, she recalled the necklace of seashells Anasuya had once gifted her—Sumangali had recently bartered it for herbs she hoped would strengthen her shattered nerves.

The crowd parted to let Andhaka through. Ishvari watched him stride to the front of the square and fall into agitated discourse with Ghora. Her throat constricted with renewed fury: was it only nine moons ago that these fiends had arrived at the gate of their ancestral home at twilight, accompanied by a couple of louts pushing a hand cart? Andhaka had yelled out for Sumangali, who’d hurried out, sleeping Obalesh in her arms, Ishvari tagging behind. Ghora had pointed to Hiranya’s body, splayed over a hill of dung at the back of the cart, his feet sticking out into mid-air.

Dead of snakebite, he’d announced, the tic beneath his left eye jumping crazily. A fitting end for a loose-lipped scoundrel, eh?

Ghora had turned to the grinning men, whom Ishvari recognized as kinsmen of Andhaka. "Burn the corpse quickly, fellows, lest it further pollute Devikota. And don’t forget to bathe right afterward, and light incense to appease the gods, plenty of it!"

Sumangali’s slender body had swayed like a lily in a strong breeze. Obalesh had awoken and begun to wail. Ishvari had made to run after the cart, whereupon Andhaka had lunged forward and struck her so viciously she’d skidded backward to hit a devadaru tree. Andhaka had ordered them back inside, then stalked off with the smirking priest.

Before daybreak, Ghora had returned with the same men, pushing the same filthy cart. Eyes glittering with lust each time they fell on her frightened mother, the priest had ordered his accomplices to toss their essentials into the cart. Then he had force-marched them to the stone cottage at the base of the haunted valley, abandoned by its sheep-herding owner who’d sworn that peals of laughter rolling across the deserted region at night had driven him near insane.

Next morning, Ghora was back with more black news: by unanimous order of the elders, their home, orchards and wheat acreage had been sold to the merchants’ guild to pay off Hiranya’s debts. Moreover, the elders had declared the three of them to be pariahs. Be grateful, woman, Ghora had leered. "If not for my

intervention, you and your litter would have been burned alive."

Paralyzed by the ruthless events that had overnight deprived her of husband, assets and reputation, Sumangali had fallen into a near-catatonic state. But Ishvari’s own anger against the influential bullies had risen to fever-pitch. Doubtless, her father had gradually turned into a violent drunk. Truth be told, mere weeks after Obalesh had emerged into the world, Hiranya had thrashed Sumangali near senseless for begging him to stop antagonizing Devikota’s administrators. Then he’d stumbled back to the tavern, muttering about an insatiable demon that had cast its spell over him. Soon after, Devikota’s rogues had murdered him.

Sumangali blamed Hiranya’s liquor-loosened tongue for their troubles. Guard your own tongue from here on, child, she’d begged Ishvari, her eyes swollen with weeping. We women are defenseless against such evil. But Ishvari’s spirit was only temporarily quelled; soon she was conjuring up fantasies of revenge.

Now, hot winds from the encroaching desert buffeted the square, sweeping grains of sand into her eyes. Ishvari rubbed them with grimy fists. A sob escaped her, causing Labuki, eldest daughter of the headman, to swivel around and shoot her a derisive look.

Thhhhu! Ishvari spat like a wild cat, unable to hold back her own contempt.

"What is wrong with you? her mother cried. Obalesh stirred in the cloth pouch hanging around Sumangali’s waist, disturbed by the mounting tension. Calm yourself! she ordered, gripping Ishvari’s hand. See? Over there! Lord Kushal has arrived!"

Ishvari saw the envoy descend from a semi-enclosed traveling coach drawn by four snorting, jet black stallions. The driver sat on a red seat, while the coach blazed in stripes of gold, green, crimson and saffron, colors of the royal elite. A phalanx of guardsmen formed a protective shield around the nobleman, who, despite his jeweled headdress and sumptuous attire, seemed quite ordinary—except for his eyes, which gleamed with cold intelligence.

Men jumped off the walls as Lord Kushal climbed onto the mud-packed dais, his keen eyes sweeping over the sea of upturned faces. Salutations from Takshak, Maharajah of Melukhha! he began—with such sure authority that the restive crowd grew quiet.

In celebration of the trade treaty between Melukhha and Sumeria, your maharajah has instructed his engineers to divert the Sarasvati River into the lowlands. Soon Devikota will be fertile again!

Come, Kushal, don’t we deserve a little honesty? a man shouted. "Takshak concocts these so-called treaties to appease the masses. Why not spit out what you’re really here for?"

Dead silence followed these incendiary words. Lord Kushal’s eyes darted fiercely from face to face, looking for the source. The stranger laughed, his voice now coming from a different angle, confounding both the envoy and the edgy mass of Devikotans. "Your loyalty to a corrupt king baffles me, Kushal. If you truly love Melukhha, inform Takshak that to seek new

tantrikas—even as he abuses the old—only serves to further enrage Rudra!"

Who speaks? Lord Kushal demanded, even as the guards’

hands flew to their scabbards—which villager would address a royal envoy with such easy familiarity? Ishvari peered through the

gaps in the surging multitude until she spied a tall stranger, standing at the far edge of the square. His chiseled face shone like burnished gold, while his body, clad only in a red loincloth, stood as sure as an unsheathed sword. A wide grin of recognition broke the gloom of her expression—why, here was the sadhu of the valley himself!

Speak up, if you dare! Lord Kushal roared. Who insults our maharajah?

Ishvari looked to see what the sadhu would do, but he’d simply vanished!

Not a Devikotan for sure, sire, Andhaka offered fearfully.

Rest assured, he does not speak for anyone of significance.…

Mahadevi showers us with prosperity, Ghora broke in frantically. May the benevolent Takshak live forever in the hearts of his people!

Lord Kushal summoned up a disdainful smile. Madmen pop up in the oddest places, he remarked languidly. And now permit me to explain my presence in Devikota: our royal astrologer has chosen twelve—out of the three thousand villages surrounding Melukhha—for a signal honor. Devikota, I’m happy to inform you, ranks first among them.

A burst of surprised cheering broke out.

Today, Lord Kushal continued gravely, "I shall select one single virgin from among you. Tomorrow, she will leave with me to be trained—along with eleven aspirants from other villages—by Melukhha’s most venerated Tantric monks. All twelve shall later serve our nobles, but only one among them shall be elected high tantrika—potentially the most revered female role in all of Melukhha. The envoy’s lips widened into a broad smile. Who can predict the play of the gods? This fortunate woman may well turn out to be Devikotan!"

Ghora rushed up to the dais eagerly, his juttu of hair bobbing atop his freshly shaved dome of a head. Tell us more, my lord,

he urged. Provide every detail so we may better serve our maharajah!

Lord Kushal ignored the fawning priest, and for this reason alone, Ishvari began to warm to him. Yes indeed, he continued,

"a high tantrika may evolve into the most influential woman in Melukhha, which is why my choice today shall not be arbitrary.

Indeed, our astrologer has given me psychic and physical signs to

guide me unerringly to the right aspirant. His gaze swept over the hushed assembly. I trust you will all cooperate."

Puzzled, Ishvari scratched her dry head, which Sumangali had not inspected for nits since Hiranya’s death. What in the name of karma was this fellow going on about? And why were these over-dressed girls vying so brazenly for his attention?

Lord Kushal stepped down to stroll between rows of nervous women. The crowd held its collective breath as he stopped before Labuki, Andhaka’s teenage daughter, considered the prettiest girl in Devikota. He studied Labuki’s slender ankles, raised his practiced gaze to her jewel-studded silver waist belt, and examined her sloe eyes. The girl thrust her full breasts forward, a seductive smile curved her lips. In time, Ishvari thought disdainfully, her breasts would hang low and dry, like those of her querulous mother, first wife of the brutal headman.

Suddenly he whipped around to face Ishvari. You, in the white tunic! he called. Sumangali nudged her sharply and Ishvari gawked at him, petrified by his approach. Lord Kushal reached forward to cup her chin with cool fingers. Your name, child, he ordered.

Ishvari, she whispered. A trickle of urine ran down her thighs.

Ish-vah-ree, Lord Kushal repeated, breaking her name into its three syllables. A glimmer of a smile crossed his face as he inspected her even more meticulously than he had Labuki, taking in the homespun shift, the skinny limbs and the black eyes that dominated her oval face. Ishvari, he repeated, rolling her name around his tongue like honey. Unnerved, she ducked behind Sumangali. The envoy chuckled. Ah, so the dirty Little Goddess hides behind her mother’s skirts, he drawled. Do you know what your name means?

‘Little Goddess’ again? Panicked, Ishvari clutched at Sumangali’s garment and the fabric ripped. Losing her balance, she fell flat on the dusty ground. A ripple of nervous laughter broke out as she scrambled to her feet, scarlet with shame, raking her eyes over the prettified girls.

By Rudra’s whip! the envoy exclaimed. Fire animates this child! He caught Ishvari by the shoulder and drew her towards him. "Ishvari means goddess," he explained kindly,

"feminine form of Rudra, Wild God, master of life and death in the Triple World. Your fierceness doesn’t surprise me, little one—all

those chosen to serve our God shine as brilliantly as Melukhha’s midday sun."

Lord Kushal gazed steadily into her frightened eyes. Many honor the Wild God as Rudra, the Howler, while to others he’s Ishvara, or Shiva the Destroyer. Whatever his name, our God encompasses everyone and everything, for he is the source of both darkness and light, as well as the fount of all contradictions.

Bending low, he whispered into her ear: Take care never to displease Rudra, Ishvari—the misery inflicted by his whip humbles the proudest soul! Then he noticed the bruise on her forehead and his eyes narrowed into slits. He turned to her mother. Your name, if you please, he ordered frostily.

Sumangali, she whispered, her almond eyes widening in her pale face.

Lord Kushal pointed to Ishvari’s forehead. "Are you

responsible for this?"

Sumangali shook her head, too intimidated to speak. She clutched Obalesh to her breast, her demeanor reminding Ishvari of the sacrificial goat the butcher had tied outside his door on the night of the last full moon.

I fell, my lord, while running, Ishvari cut in quickly. Hit my head on a rock.

"And just who, Lord Kushal demanded, moving forward again to grasp her chin and pin her with his eagle eyes, were you running from?"

Ghora, our priest, Ishvari blurted, her heart beating so fast she worried about falling dead at his elegantly shod feet. He was hurting my mother with his body.

A cry of horror escaped Sumangali; she shielded her eyes from the startled stares of the mob surging about them with her free hand.

The girl’s lying! Ghora shrieked, darting Ishvari a searing look in which she caught a flash of naked fear. Ask anyone here, they’ll tell you—

Quiet! Lord Kushal barked. Ghora’s face flushed an ugly red, though he subsided instantly. The envoy turned to Ishvari, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "Are you sure your mother does not invite this…this unappetising fellow to sport with her?

Coupling is permitted if both parties are willing, you know."

"My mother’s not willing, sire, Ishvari cried, her skinny body trembling with rage. She does it for vegetables and rice—or we might starve!"

Lord Kushal’s face expressed fastidious disgust. He cast a withering look at Ghora before addressing the restless crowd.

Where is Ishvari’s father?

Sumangali’s a widow, great sire, Vamadeva, Andhaka’s cousin, and Devikota’s tavern keeper, shouted hoarsely. "Her man died in debt—after poisoning his own parents at his wife’s urging…we found his body in the Field of Cobras…only drunkards blunder there at night."

A dreamy stargazer who lived for his liquor, Labuki’s mother offered in a quavering voice. Sold his soul to a witch and got everything he deserved!

Ishvari wanted to scream that they were all liars and thieves, but Lord Kushal was raising a hand for silence. He turned to her shaken mother. Answer me truthfully, O Sumangali—was the name Ishvari your choice?

Why was he changing the subject at this critical point?

Ishvari frowned.

Wiping her face with the edge of her garment, Sumangali shook her head shyly even as she jiggled the restless baby in her arms. It was her father’s notion, sire, she said hesitantly. He swore a voice too sweet to be human breathed it into his ear.

A faint smile hovered about the envoy’s mouth. What was the exact time of her birth?

Ishvari slipped out of my womb at dusk, Sumangali whispered, forcing the envoy to bend to catch her words. My husband urged me to look out of the window, and I saw the moon, hanging silver radiant in the sky. As we both watched, transfixed, the sun, already sinking into other worlds, rose high again to blaze forth on Devikota. Her eyes blurred with tears. I’m no sorceress, my lord, and my Hiranya was the finest man in all Devikota. It was the sudden death of both his parents that led him to drink.…

Lord Kushal halted her rush of words with a raised hand. He pointed toward Vamadeva and Labuki’s mother, the diamonds on his manicured ring finger flashing. Such conflicting statements to make, he tut-tutted. "Does a dreamy stargazer murder his own parents? Your scurrilous lying may get the both of you executed—

and for no less than murder!"

Ishvari stifled hysterical giggles at the impotent fury on Vamadeva’s face. Her eyes darted back to the envoy, now addressing her mother for all to hear. I’ve circled the civilized world and learned much about our universe, O Sumangali. I’d wager my stallions you’re the furthest thing from a sorceress. By the power our monarch has vested in me, I hereby guarantee your safety. Now, if you please, kindly complete the recounting of your daughter’s birth.

Sumangali’s voice was choked with emotion. "My...my husband…he claimed the sun’s unusual ascent that evening was due to the gods pouring fresh fuel on that shining orb. Hiranya enjoyed playing with language and ideas, my lord…he said it was a sure omen that our daughter was destined for moksha, for full liberation."

Ishvari’s eyes grew big— why on blessed earth had

Sumangali kept this from her?

Lord Kushal nodded with satisfaction, seemingly impressed by Sumangali’s surprising eloquence. He drew a clay tablet from the folds of his inner garment and scanned its markings. Devadas predicted the girl would be born when both sun and moon were in the sky, he muttered. He turned to Sumangali: How did your husband die?

Andhaka shoved Ghora forward. Of…of snakebite, sire,

the priest stuttered. "A terrible omen, if one refers to the teachings of our rishis—"

Fascinating, Lord Kushal remarked, cutting him off in mid-flow. A boor who violates defenseless widows claims intimate knowledge of our wisest men!

Ghora’s cheeks flamed. Bowing clumsily, he backed into the crowd. Again Ishvari suppressed giggles—if the priest dared approach the cottage again, she’d aim for his eyes!

The envoy swiveled around to face her. How many years do you have?

Twelve, Sumangali answered for her. The envoy took Ishvari’s right hand, clucking reprovingly at the dirt embedded in her broken nails before turning it over to study the lines on her palm. She pressed her lean thighs together, hoping he would not smell her drying urine. He reached into the folds of his tunic and withdrew a transparent disc with a golden stem which he held over her palm, squinting at the network of creases that covered the

work-toughened mounds—it was a magical device, Ishvari marveled, one that made things appear larger!

Lord Kushal turned to Sumangali, observing her weary beauty. Drawing a leather pouch out of the pocket of his robe, he handed it to her with a formal bow. Compensation for your loss, my good woman. Kindly prepare your daughter to leave with me at first light tomorrow.

Sumangali’s hand dropped with the weight of the purse. She cast an anguished look at Ishvari, whose legs had begun to shake uncontrollably: was her mother planning to sell her to this man?

Your husband was correct, Lord Kushal murmured reassuringly.

Ishvari’s lines reveal extraordinary intelligence and depth, while the crescent in the corner of her palm indicates Mahadevi’s direct protection—it would take great crimes to negate this spiritual benefaction.

Slowly, Ishvari returned to the scene around her. The sun still burned her body, and the surrounding crowd was now as ominously hushed as was the earth before the quake that had recently hit Devikota. Hey, Andhaka! a woman yelled. Does the envoy know about the curse on the girl’s mother? Tell him Sumangali’s a witch, and all three of them pariahs!

Then the voice of Andhaka himself, raised high in outrage—

"Lord Kushal must reconsider! A disgrace for Devikota—choosing a pariah over my own daughter! Huh!"

The envoy confronted the hulking headman. Could it be,

he said, enunciating each word clearly, could it possibly be you’ve forgotten whose authority you question? He took a step forward. Lording over this insignificant little village may well have addled your brains, assuming you had some to begin with.

He paused to adjust his headdress. In fact, my dear fellow, it’s almost as if you harbor a death wish.

Andhaka made to turn away, but Lord Kushal held up a restraining hand. I’ve selected aspirants for twenty-one years, you should know, and many consider me an expert in the area of aesthetics. He flicked a spot of dust off his embroidered jacket.

Your daughter, while pretty enough, lacks the depth of character that flowers into classic beauty. On the other hand, I predict that seven years from now, Ishvari will dazzle Takshak himself. He wagged a playful finger at Andhaka. Don’t you go blaming your daughter now…shallowness is often an inherited trait.

As the headman backed away from the dapper envoy, Ishvari began to comprehend the meaning of royal power: if even influential Andhaka quailed at the words of this aristocrat, she could only imagine the might of the maharajah! Lord Kushal leapt nimbly back onto the dais. People of Devikota! he cried. Be assured—the girl Ishvari has all the signs I was directed to look for!

A stone flew out and struck Sumangali on the shoulder. The head of the guardsmen, a burly man with expressionless eyes, stepped forward. Lord Kushal waved him back. Had that stone struck Ishvari, he said calmly, "I’d find and execute the culprit—

right now! Now hear me well! Should any of you, high or low—"

and here he stared directly at Ghora—"misbehave towards Ishvari’s family in the slightest, your punishment shall be swift and severe. Ishvari is now the personal property of the maharajah. By sacred law, all her kinfolk fall under royal protection and are no longer pariahs. Never forget—Takshak has eyes everywhere!"

The jealousy of the crowd hit Ishvari like a palpable wave.

A mantle of perverse pride fell over her as Lord Kushal returned to her side. It was followed by a steady drizzle of fear. This is real,

she told herself, rubbing her arms with sweating palms. Tomorrow, she’d be packed off with this intimidating nobleman, sold, like a sack of grain. The lump in her throat grew as big as the rock that stood at the foot of the valley. Dazed, she scratched her scalp again as the god of the valley’s prophetic words echoed eerily in her head.

Lord Kushal took a lock of her hair in his hands and gingerly separated the strands between his fingers. She’d left it long and loose this morning, too vexed to even braid it. Nits! he cried, appalled. Is there a barber among you? he called to the crowd.

Kutsa came bustling forward.

Lord Kushal pointed to Ishvari. Shave this child’s head clean, he ordered.

Kutsa gaped, taken aback.

The fool thought the envoy needed a trim, a woman chuckled. Ishvari recognized the voice of the barber’s rejected mistress. Sniggers erupted—the liquor-addicted Kutsa was not popular. Watch out, Kutsa, the herb merchant sneered. The girl bites.

Catching flies, are you? Lord Kushal barked at the barber.

Go on now, get your implements and be quick about it.

Kutsa lumbered away and Ishvari’s spirits sank into the earth—of all the awful things she could have envisioned, this had to be the worst. The barber returned with a worn leather bag and a wooden stool. Seizing Ishvari roughly, he deposited her on the stool and proceeded to hack off her long hair before shaving her skull clean with his razor.

"All of it, Lord Kushal ordered, pointing to a spot he’d missed. Kutsa obeyed with alacrity. The envoy stepped back to view her properly. A perfectly shaped head, he murmured, pleased, dropping a gold coin into Kutsa’s waiting palm. He swung around to face the crowd. The spectacle’s over. Leave—you two, as well," he ordered, pointing at Andhaka and Ghora who stood huddled together. As the Devikotans dispersed in grumbling waves, Andhaka strode toward Labuki to enfold her in hairy arms.

Given his violent cunning with anyone who posed the slightest threat to his position, his genuine concern for his daughter baffled Ishvari. With a malevolent glance at Ishvari, Andhaka too left the square, his arm encircling a pale Labuki.

Then there were just the four of them and the guardsmen.

Leading Sumangali a few feet away, Lord Kushal spoke to her in low tones. Ishvari caught the tremor in her mother’s responses.

Sumangali walked back to Ishvari, rubbing her bruised shoulder with her free hand. Grasping Ishvari’s arm, she led her homeward in bleak silence, Obalesh napping all the way.

Ishvari sat on the stoop, unwilling to enter the cottage.

Come inside, Sumangali called from within, her voice immeasurably sad. We’ve so much to do tonight.

In dramatic response, Ishvari jabbed her nails into her skull;

bile shot up into the scrawny column of her throat and she vomited bright yellow bitter stuff all over the stoop.

Sumangali rushed out, Obalesh tucked under her arm, squalling loudly. This is the result of too much heat! she cried, dragging Ishvari inside. She set the baby on the mat in the corner and gestured for Ishvari to lie down beside him. Then she placed the urn of spring water next to the mat and proceeded to bathe Ishvari’s feverish body with a moist cloth.

Breathe deep and slow, child, she instructed gently. Your heart beats too loud.

It was true; Ishvari thought, her heart beat as loudly as the drum she sometimes heard in the middle of the night. Rigid as a corpse, she watched Sumangali make space for her purse behind a loose stone in the wall. It was clear why her mother had accepted the envoy’s selection; this much gold would buy much more than just food, clothes and luxuries they’d almost forgotten. And after the envoy’s warning, Sumangali could reject Ghora and live with dignity.

Trapped alone in a chasm between discordant worlds, Ishvari fell asleep. In the dream that came to her, she lay in a clearing beside the sparkling river that snaked its lazy way through the valley. The leopard of the valley sprang upon her, tearing the heart out of her chest. Rearing up on